Lessons Learned in 2008

It’s that time of year again when Nostradamus‘s Wikipedia page gets more visits than it did all year, and when the entire blogosphere looks deep into its crystal ball, shuffles the tarot cards, and judiciously reads the 2009 RSS horoscope feeds. That’s right: Prediction season.

But if there’s one thing we can learn from the financial industry this past year, it’s that predictions are not necessarily the best use of everyone’s time. Especially when there tends to be more black swans waddling around then white ones.

So for this prediction season, rather than looking into the well for magical visions like I normally do, I thought it would be more responsible to reflect upon the year gone by and write down some lessons learned. Perhaps, then at least, we don’t make the same mistakes in 2009. Here are my top three lessons learned when developing content programs for brands:

Don’t Spend all of Your Production and Media Dollars up Front

If there’s one mental shift that must happen when thinking about digital brand content, it’s how and when to spend money. Traditionally, the industry has been comfortable spending all its content media dollars in the upfronts (define) every year — a title that’s a bit misleading considering brands are very downstream in the process. But with digital brand content, brands and agencies now have the power to be much more upstream in deciding what gets produced, when it gets produced, and how that content gets distributed. And in turn, the way that money is spent can be much more strategic.

In the online space, because agencies no longer have to pool all money into one or two networks, they can now spend that money much more creatively, as well as optimize their distribution plan along the way. Therefore, it’s important to save at least 20 to 30 percent of your upfront digital distribution dollars in order to be able to react to how content is performing.

Similarly, in producing content, agencies again have much more control around what and how they produce video for digital. Unlike TV spots — where all your dollars are again spent upfront to make a perfect 30 or 60 second edit — the online space demands that you are responsive to your audience. That requires a “test and learn” mentality, which in turn requires you to create a spend-as-you-go production model. Being topical and participating in a conversation with your audience far outweighs having a perfectly shot scripted spot.

Find a Balance Between Distribution and Destination

Even large networks like NBC, which launched Hulu, an online video service, know the importance of distribution versus creating a walled garden of content online. Placing content across video portals and communities has indeed proven to be a successful model for both content creators and brands alike. The question now is: How do we connect all the dots and build community across these networks?

One approach to this dilemma is to build a destination site that provides added value beyond just showcasing content. Hold a promotion that will drive participation and give viewers a chance to win something or to get a chance in the spotlight. Or create a useful new tool (or tools!) that let viewers engage around or within the content.

Most viewers are so comfortable in their chosen video portal community, the last thing you want to do is drive them away from your content in that space (and them talking about it), only to send them to a more heavily branded destination with nothing new! Giving them something in addition to entertainment will foster deeper discussions that will help connect the dots across distributed networks and help bring communities together.

Consider White-Label Technology Versus Building Something From Scratch

With all of the economic issues that are ahead of us in 2009, being smarter about how we build digital experiences is critical. That means finding creative solutions in technology rather than always starting from scratch.

With the explosion of Web 2.0 tools and software over the past five years, the problem is really choosing which one to go with rather than finding what’s out there. Today, partnering with companies like Blip.tv, Vimeo, or Viddler to create a branded video player is wiser than developing your own. Not only do they have better streaming solutions than most steaming providers, they also have plug-and-play functionality that often get overlooked when building from scratch.

The same goes for building applications and widgets. And even when creating social networks! For the former, using an existing white-label application that already has an audience is one way to guarantee adoptability. While you may have more control in building applications from scratch, there is always uncertainty around whether the functionality will be easily adapted.

Similarly, if a brand ever has the urge to build a social network or video community from scratch for a program, working with companies like Ning and Permission.tvis a must. They allow for more creative flexibility and branding than existing video portals and communities, and they are more cost effective and faster solutions for your client than tasking an internal technology team in your agency to build. However, it is also important to consider the immediate audience you lose by not partnering with companies like YouTube and MySpace. Sometimes the extra creative control you get with white-label platforms isn’t worth the trade-off.

And in the end, putting money into the production of great video content and building the promotion, activation and distribution components around that content to engage the audience is key.

So what is the number one lesson learned in 2008? Don’t spend money on the things you no longer have to. Especially when there is a lot less money to spend!

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